Simpson Team Gets 5th in St. Louis Hackathon

A team of Simpson students won 5th place in the college section of the GlobalHack hackathon in St Louis from November 21-23. GlobalHack challenged participants to create technology solutions that  address homelessness. The hackathon drew 156 teams from 33 states and 7 foreign countries. This is the first time our students have participated in a hackathon, and they did extremely well! A report from team captain Nate Hayes follows.

Overview

Contrary to what the name might suggest, a hackathon is not a competition in which competitors try to infiltrate networks or computers. Instead the prefix “hack”” refers to a clever idea that makes something better or easier, as in the phrase “life-hack”. The hackathon that we participated in focused on addressing issues related to homelessness.

Websites like “GoFundMe” allow people who do not have enough money to do something to request donations from people to help them achieve their goal. Our team took this concept and applied it to helping prevent people from becoming homeless. People who have recently lost their jobs or who are not able to pay their rent would use our site to ask for funding so that they can maintain their residence for a little longer to get on their feet again. We cap the amount of money a person can receive at $1,000 so that people can only obtain enough to sustain themselves.

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Prior to the Hackathon

Before the hackathon our team, Tyler Godfrey, Esteban Sierra, David De Haro and myself (Nate Hayes), met up to make sure that we all had the software installed on our computers that we would be using to build our site. At this time we did not know specifically what we would be asked to do at the hackathon. However we did know that the subject involved homelessness.

The First Day (Friday)

We arrived at the site in St Louis at about 3:30pm. The arena was as large as the Wells Fargo arena in Des Moines, and it was packed! There were about 200 teams containing over 1,000 people, competing in 3 sections: Professional, College, and Youth (middle and high-school).

We moved all of our stuff in and tried to get connected to the WiFi – a trip to Walmart to pick up a dual-band network adapter was needed. After some welcoming ceremonies the hackathon started at 6 pm and we began coding our website. I remained conscious and coding until roughly 1 pm the next day.

The Second Day (Saturday)

The days of the hackathon are somewhat blurry for me, no doubt due to lack of sleep. Saturday was spent walking around the arena to generate ideas, designing the look-and-feel of the website and of course, coding. Always coding. And more coding. We never stopped coding. In the brief periods I did sleep, I even dreamed of coding.

There were many companies sponsoring the hackathon, and they all had booths set up trying to generate interest from the people in the arena. They usually had candy bowls. I liked those booths.

There were other events taking place during the hackathon to help coders de-stress. I did not go to any of them but apparently the Midnight Dance Party was fun and the hour-long yoga session was very relaxing.

After I fell asleep at 1 pm, I slept for about 2 hours, waking up at 3 pm. I kept coding until ~7 am the next morning.

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The Final Day (Sunday)

I slept from 7-7:30am so that I would not pass out during the judging. We submitted our final project at 9am – no further changes were allowed after that.

The first round of judging was “Science Fair” style. Judges walked around and spent 4min (timed to the second!) with each team. After the first judges who came by seemed less than enthused, Esteban and I refined our presentation technique and did much better with the second set of judges. We successfully qualified to the next round.

The next round of judging was a lot more personal, with the 36 teams that made it through getting 5 minutes in a closed room to present to the judges, and then 5 minutes for Q&A. This went fantastically well. After we went through code review, a process designed to make sure people’s code actually does what they say it does, we went to the arena to wait for the final announcement of who would progress to the final round. Five teams in each section were called. We were one of them – one of the top 5 college teams!

The Final Presentation (5pm Sunday)

The finalists presented their projects to the entire crowd in the arena. Instead of, as before, just connecting up our laptops to show the judges what we did, they had an Audio/Video room which drove the big screens. This room was built with metal walls… not very good for WiFi.

I got about 30 seconds into the demo before we lost WiFi and the demo crashed! I spent the remaining time talking about a program that nobody could see! Although some other teams had the same WiFi problem, their connection held for a longer time. The final ranking reflected this. The teams with the demos that did not fail got the first two spots, the team which lasted ~2 minutes got 3rd, the team with 1 minute got 4th, and we got 5th. We would have finished higher with better WiFi. Still, it was amazing to finish in 5th place.

The team that won the college section built a system that when you call their phone number, it would get your location from your number and report back where the nearest food bank/shelter/free clinic is. It was very impressive.

We got back to Indianola around 2 am. Fortunately our great professors were quite understanding if we, shall we say, were not very active in class on Monday.

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